Execs: Turner to offer buyouts, layoffs still on tap

Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

Turner Broadcasting, one of metro Atlanta’s biggest employers, will announce voluntary buyout offers to nearly 600 older U.S. employees this week, a first step in efforts to shed costs and refocus its business, according to two company executives familiar with the plans.

Even if every eligible worker accepts the buyouts, Turner will cut more jobs later this year, according to the executives, who asked to remain unnamed.

Employees have become increasingly worried about the prospect of sharp reductions at Turner, which is part of Time Warner Inc. and includes CNN, TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, truTV, HLN and other networks and online sites. Morale has sagged at Turner’s offices in Atlanta, where about half of the company’s nearly 13,000 full-time global employees are based.

Turner operations remain solidly profitable, but ratings for some of its biggest networks have fallen and there is pressure to produce more original programming that viewers can’t get elsewhere. In addition, much of the TV industry is scrambling to figure out how to make more money serving viewers who are increasingly likely to go online for entertainment and news.

Meanwhile, parent company Time Warner’s decision to oppose a takeover bid by 21st Century Fox earlier this summer puts more pressure on Turner and sister units HBO and Warner Bros. film and TV production to boost profits and Time Warner’s stock price.

Turner CEO John Martin issued two memos this summer on the need focus on growth and cut spending, predicting the company will be more “streamlined” by the new year. He launched an initiative dubbed “Turner 2020” (in reference to Turner’s 50th anniversary year) to tackle the changes.

Last week, CNN chief Jeff Zucker warned lieutenants that the news organization will have “to do less and have to do it with less.”

Word of cutbacks has sparked concern that operations, especially CNN’s, might leave Atlanta completely. But Turner executives familiar with plans said there are no intentions to shift significant CNN operations out of Atlanta or to sell parts of the company. The bulk of CNN’s employees should remain in Atlanta after the cuts, one executive said.

The Turner 2020 initiative “is not about acquisitions, not about divestitures,” the second executive said.

They said they don’t know how many jobs will ultimately be shed by the end of the year as part of broader spending cuts.

The buyout offers will go to nearly 7 percent of Turner’s 9,000 or so U.S. employees, one executive said.

About a third of the buyout offers will be at CNN. The offers are being made to all employees who are 55 or older and have a certain number of years of service with the company. Participation is voluntary, they said.

Involuntary job cuts will be made later this year, but the number will depend in part on how many employees take the buyouts, they said.

Chris Carr, who heads the Georgia Department of Economic Development, called CNN an “icon” of the state.

“You’ve got CNN, you’ve got Coca-Cola, you’ve got Home Depot,” Carr said. “Those are international brands for the state of Georgia. We’re proud of having CNN in the state of Georgia, and we would not want anything to happen like what we’ve heard rumors of. But we’ve heard no (facts) yet.”

Turner and CNN’s top leadership is largely based in New York as are many of the news network’s anchors. CNN recently moved weekday daytime talent such as Brooke Baldwin and Carol Costello to Manhattan.

But CNN chief Zucker, who’s been at the helm since early 2013, said last year that Atlanta will remain the home and “backbone” of CNN.

Two media analysts recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it would make sense for top executives of non-news networks such as TNT or TBS to be based in California if the goal of the networks is to boost their offerings of original series. That would put top decision makers for the networks in the heart of Hollywood, rather than Atlanta.

Though it is possible Turner could decide to relocate executives or even some departments within networks, moving CNN and other Turner networks completely out of Atlanta would be extraordinarily expensive, two Atlanta area real estate executives said.

Turner has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in CNN Center, one of the city’s top tourist attractions, and its campuses in Midtown Atlanta. That figure includes $160 million invested in two buildings that opened at the campus on Techwood Drive and 10th Street in 2002, according to an AJC story at the time.

The campus features several production and office buildings, advanced communications infrastructure and systems to protect the networks from power loss and lightning strikes that would be expensive to reproduce in other cities, one real estate executive said.